The punditocracy is, as we all know by know, frighteningly well populated by naked emperors. David Brooks is not the most egregious — not for lack of trying, I admit — but given the competition, I’m not even sure if he makes the top ten.
But he is exemplary, and his column of November 2 provides a great case study of how elite opinion composes itself — and yet makes, seemingly, no contact with the world of experience the rest of us inhabit.
In that column Brooks advances the following argument: that the sexual adventurers have never had it so good — or at least so easy — thanks to the advent of cell phones and social media…and that the rise of this technologically-enhanced libertinism has cast all of us out of “the Happy Days era” — his term, to our sorrow and loss.
Where to begin?
Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already identified the essential flaw in this particular column. He writes of Brooks — and “conservative” (actually radical) nostalgia:
This is a theme residing in the conservative soul–a professed, thinly-reasoned skepticism of the fucked-up now, contrasted against a blind, unquestioning acceptance of the hypermoral past. This is a human idea–most people, like those slaves, believe some point in the past was better. And indeed, in some case the past was demonstrably better. But the writer who would argue such has to prove it. He can’t just accept his innate hunch.
Exactly so. To put the same thought into the frame of this blog: it is a central theme of what happens around here that much journalistic sin would be avoided, and much gain for the republic accrued, if only the habits of scientific thinking penetrated the punditocracy (and the citizenry at large, of course).
If you are aspire to a job like the one Brooks holds, and you want to think and write well about our world, then you need to acquaint yourself with the standard tools of a scientist working on more or less any problem: notions of quantification; of the importance of empiricism and of analysis;of what might be called informational hygiene and the proper skepticism in the face of claims of fact unsupported by a clear portrait of how those “facts” came to be known…all the tools with which researchers try to make sure that what they think they know is real.
And if there is a single unifying flaw that connects most of the really disastrous punditry and opinion “journalism” flooding the intertubes these days, it is that so many — and most of the most prominent — don’t come close to this standard. Rather, their approach seems to be dominated by the “too good to check” approach to whatever received wisdom they may wish to purvey…
…which brings me back to Mr. Brooks.
His essential claim is that reading the accounts of 132 New Yorkers who chose to offer New York magazine with a diary of one week’s worth of their sex and social lives demonstrates that modern technology has fundamentally transformed courtship, love, and by extension the fabric of meaning in society.
It’s a superficially plausible argument. It certainly feels as if various technological developments — geolocation for one, the ease with which it is possible to converse with multiple individuals or groups over multiple information channels for another — have the power to alter, even undermine, the experience of a one-on-one conversation, carnal or otherwise.
But, as Ta-Nehisi says, prove it.
And this Brooks doesn’t — and he fails to do so in a way implicates him in twin sins: claims of fact unsupported by the evidence, and flaws of logic that undermine each step of his argument.
Let’s watch, shall we?
First of all, the entire premise of the column rests on sample bias. He bases his conclusions about all manner of things — sexual habits, commitment and ritual issues and all the rest, on a gloss of the words of 132 twice-selected people who chose to share their sexual adventures with an audience of millions. Remember — these came from (a) those that chose to write about their sex lives and (b) who did so with enough gusto to be selected for maximum audience titillation by some folks aiming to sell magazines.
Brooks, lazy but not dumb, is of course alert to half the issue. He writes,
“people who send in sex diaries to a magazine are not representative of average Americans.”
But never mind. Because Brooks knows the answer already, these unrepresentative adventurers are, suddenly, representative:
“the interplay between technology and hook-ups will be familiar to a wide swath of young Americans.”
So what is this territory, foreign to us greybeards for whom Brooks wishes to serve as Virgil, guiding us through the sexual underworld enjoyed by Kids These Days? “On nights when they are out, the diarists are often texting multiple possible partners in search of the best arrangement.” This, Brooks writes,
leads to a series of marketing strategies. You don’t want to appear too enthusiastic. You want to invent detached nicknames for partners….You want to appear bulletproof as you move confidently through the transactions.
So, let me get this straight: Brooks is saying that texting produces novel sexual marketing strategies…and, that folks raised to sexual maturity in the “Happy Days era” gained a pureness of heart that derived from their lack of have access to the same technology.
The logical flaw is obvious, I think: there is a difference between saying technology renders something easier and that such technology makes the same practices possible.
And empirically, I have to say that reading this made me wonder if Brooks has either pulse or memory. The notion that in some glorious past folks seeking the or many mates haven’t cloaked themselves in confidence or tried to game the chase between hunger for the most desirable and the potential loss of the available misses everything I observed in myself and my peers from junior high school on.
More concretely, if you don’t trust personal recollection (and why should you…see above), then look to the literature. Data matters. What people have done when they approach such questions systematically, helps those who would think with their gut or other organs straighten themselves out.
You can begin with the Kinsey studies of 1948 and 1953, which show that depending on socioeconomic class, between 67 and 98% of men engaged in premarital sex — the bane of Happy Days nostalgia, with 68% doing so before they turned 18. The number for women topped out a 50%.
(Half a nation of bad girls back there in Daddy Eisenhower’s ranch house? Who knew? Everyone. Except of course, Mr. Brooks).
Or, more recently, one could check the National Health and Social Life Survey for data on numbers of sexual partners (and much else besides), collected in a massive survey in 1992. There, you will find that within the prior year 11.7 percent of women and 23.4 percent of men of all ages had more than one sexual partner, and that the pursuit of such variety is skewed — surprise! — to folks 18-24, of whom 32.3 percent report playing the field.
That is: Brooks has no idea whether the anecdotes on which he bases his conclusion that we’re doomed to emotional evisceration describe anything that is in fact new — and there is plenty of evidence within easy reach of a bit of googling to suggest that sexually active folks have been, well, active for a while.
Doing even such minimal research, is dangerous, of course. It might make it more difficult to write passages like this.
Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.
This is nonsense on so many levels. Remember the Kinsey numbers: lots of sex happened in the ’50s, much of it outside the formal bounds of the guardrails in question. For a literary confirmation, you might want to check in on this text. It’s post Ike but pre Free Speech Movement (the other FSM).
And then there’s the logical flaw here: one of Brooks’s favorite cons, the false dichotomy. Does Brooks really think that social media exist outside social institutions? In that case, who are the people being texted in the diaries that so offend his sense of propriety? As I read through them, it looks kind of familiar folks from neighborhoods, workplaces and friend/family networks.
Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era.
Ahh…now we get it. Women who might like (a) jobs that give them economic independence and (b) sex, made enormously less life-changingly risky by access to reliable contraception, are at fault.
But yet again, data matter. Here is where the real idiocy of the whole column comes into play. Brooks asserts that nasty sexually active women (and presumably their sexually engaged partners) have destroyed a traditional path of encounter-relationship-marriage.
Brooks knows this how? He doesn’t say, because, I infer, he doesn’t actually know anything at all.
He doesn’t cite data on changes in the number of sexual partners over the years; he doesn’t discuss the long term patterns — pre texting, post contraception — that show a drop in both marriage and divorce rates.
He doesn’t note the fact that the number of unmarried living-together couples has increased tenfold from the Happy Days era to know, a reservoir of committed couples not captured in the marriage and divorce statistics. (It has nearly doubled since 1990, and one wonders what would happen to the marriage statistics if only cohabiting same-sex couples enjoyed the bare minimum of equal protection under the law.)
And so on: whatever the data may be, with whatever problems of interpretation, Brooks doesn’t engage any of it, and thus has no basis for saying that familiar patterns of human mating have fallen prey to the evilss inherent in text message.
I’ll give Brooks this. He’s clever.
Unlike Serious Person wannabe Megan McCardle, to take a favorite target here, he doesn’t commit himself to many real claims of fact that could simply be shown to be false.
Rather, as in the three paragraphs leading to his Extremely Serious Person conclusion, he avers, (a) that “the opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization” [aside: was this man never at a party with more than one object of desire present?--ed.]; (b) that same opportunity” …seems to encourage an attitude of contingency;” and it (c) “…also seems to encourage an atmosphere of general disenchantment.”
Now that’s playing it safe.
You can’t quite call him wrong…because it only seems that he is completely off track…
Except I can and will.
Worse still, he is gutless. He thinks he knows something so important that it must not be false, and therefore should not be checked. That is, as any scientist knows, the fastest ticket to hell anyone nominally committed to reality can buy.
I’ll close with one last example, just because it gives me an excuse to post some Youtubes I wanted to get up there anyway. Brooks writes
Across the centuries the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment.
But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. A coat of ironic detachment is required for anyone who hopes to withstand the brutal feedback of the marketplace. In today’s world,the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner.
Oh my dear FSM.
It’s not just the women, it’s those damned environmentalists too.
Lot’s to dissect here, but why? Brooks is mailing it in through this passage, as he has for the column as a whole, I suppose.
I could point out that “texting” and “the utilitarian mindset” are not equivalents, either as entitites in the world — one is an action, the other is a worldview — nor as complementary phenomena. One may txt a love letter — hell , whole novels are written on cell phones — while it is almost overwhelmingly obtuse for Brooks to use a scary word like “utilitarian” to mean, I think, “instrumental,” and not that philosophical position that is, at least for some, the gateway to a truly humane understanding of our obligations to our fellows.
I could note that his maunderings about love as a holy cause is the stuff of Regency Romances, and capturing none of the extraordinarily rich history of both the idea and experience of love and marriage, that legal commitment that is as much about property law as it is about passion. (See Middlemarch if you want eloquent testimony to that hard truth). [Update: or as Tim notes in the comments, ponder the history of love as the enemy of sound marriage -- as in Tim's on-target example of the source of tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.]
I could note that Wallace Stevens was an insurance man, William Carlos Williams a doctor, and that poet laureate of anti-Semitism, the man whose poetry was better than his cause, T. S. Eliot, was a banker. And yet somehow these men, fulfilling their utilitarian obligations within the brutal feedback mechanism that is the market, somehow managed to write a lick or two more imaginatively and poetically than one Mr. David Brooks, himself a prosodic peddlar of easy nostalgia and misremembered pasts.
But why bother, when Brooks’ true sin in this passage is his attempt to neuter the Boss. I mean, Bruce Springsteen can surely write as romantic a ballad as anyone… but he’s also written this:
And, if you really want to get your Jersey groove on, this:
(and if you think this one’s a paean to self sacrifice and selfless commitment, you might want to ponder the concept of fever in the context of love. Just sayin.)
Seriously, Mr. Brooks.
Trust me on this. There is nothing more painful than watching an aging never-cool guy — long past the need for coolth — trying to be catch the wave just once in life.
Which means, right here and right now: Don’t go bandying your Bruce at me.
That is all. [Ain't that enough?--ed.]
Images: Alexander Vladimirovich Makovski, “I am bored with you,” 1897.
Sir Frank Dicksee, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” c. 1890.
Jan van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait” 1434